Shlomo Sand argues in How I Stopped Being A Jew that “he foundations on which the State of Israel was created were essentially laid by socialists from the various Eastern European nations. These individuals were secularists who rebelled against Judaism, yet they were forced none the less to adopt from the start key markers of the religious tradition, including the Jewish communitarian ethic intrinsic to it.”

Colonization of Palestine was justified by appeal to the Bible, as the “religious myth of Abrahamic descent” was turned to political purposes. Zionism likewise “deeply internalized” the Christian view of Jews as an exiled, cursed, wandering people. Zionism aimed to “create a culture that broke completely with the ‘exilic’ past.”

Sand finds evidence in the “Hebrew-ization” of names: “All the Israeli leaders, like their pioneer parents before them, abandoned the surnames that Jews had adopted at the time of the first modern population censuses, with David Green passing to posterity as David Ben-Gurion and Szymon Perski becoming Shimon Peres. Similarly, Yitzhak Rabin had been born Rubitzov, Ehud Barak had been Brog, Ariel Scheinermann became Sharon, the father of Benjamin Netanyahu was born Mileikowsky, and Shaul Mofaz had been the young Shahram Mofazzakar.”

Names that “evoked the weak Jews who had been led to concentration camps and massacred like cattle” were dropped, in favor of names that evokes “a muscular Hebrew full of vigour, physical as well as spiritual.”

Zionist success in creating a national culture was, Sand argues, unprecedented, and speedy. What took European powers many generations to achieve was achieved in Israel in two generations. That national culture was specifically Israeli, not Hebraic in a religious sense and deliberately distanced from the Jewish culture of European Judaism.

This was the formation of the notion of a “secular Jew,” a concept that Sand believes to be “arbitrary” and “against all logic.” This construct depended on changing the notion of “Jewishness” from a religious to a biological category. The ethnic diversity of the migrants to Palestine had to be downplayed, as birth rather than religious belief or practice came to be the decisive factor in determining who was a Jew.

More on: Judaism, Zionism

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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